Galaxy Four – the new(ish) DVD

My loving spouse got me the three most recent Doctor Who animated DVDs for Christmas, and I have started working through them. First up is the first story of the original Season 3, Galaxy Four, which as with many other stories I first watched in 2007. I wrote then:

Galaxy Four was the opening story for the original third season of Doctor Who back in September 1965. No new or departing companions, just the First Doctor, Steven and Vicki landing on a doomed planet and finding themselves forced to decide whether to help the beautiful but militaristic Drahvins or the repulsive Rills with their robotic Chumbly servants. I thought it was rather good, and I say this as one who doesn’t normally like reconstructions (I will probably get hold of the narrated audio as well to compare). [Note: I didn’t.]

There is great violence done to astrophysics in the set-up – as so often, there seems a basic confusion between the concepts of “galaxy” and “solar system”, and I can’t quite believe the idea of a planet in orbit around several suns simultaneously, which is about to be destroyed by the gravitational stresses, and nonetheless is habitable with a breathable atmosphere. But hey, this is a story where a police box with an impossibly large interior travels through time and space, so we shouldn’t complain too much.

Anyway, I thought the idea of two completely inhuman races in the story, and appearances being deceptive, made a very nice tale.

When I came back to it in my Great Rewatch a couple of years later, I wrote:

The only completely missing story of this run is Galaxy 4, which means we are in a slightly chalk-and-cheese situation. From surviving clips, the look and sound of the alien planet was pretty impressive – I see it is Geoffrey Hodgson who gets the credit for the background noises, which really deserve to be described as incidental music. It’s also a rather interesting reintroduction of the Doctor, now shorn of his original companions, as an ethical hero – the Rills recognise his moral superiority, to the point that they are prepared to sacrifice themselves for him if necessary. And the story itself has a more explicit moral message (“don’t judge by appearances”) than most Who stories. This third season starts with far future allegory and ends with contemporary political commentary, by way of epic and slapstick. Having said all that, unfortunately the actual plot details of Galaxy Four are pretty silly – why on earth would the Drahvins send the Doctor and Vicki to capture the Rills’ ship? What possible scientific basis can there be for the planet exploding? Poor Steven, as Peter Purves bitterly points out, ends up playing a part originally written for Barbara. It is a somewhat wobbly start to the new season.

I’m taking my reminiscences slightly out of order. Galaxy Four was one of the rare stories which I first encountered through reading the novelisation in New Who era – I happened to pick it up as a freebie given away with a magazine in June 2007. This was the month of Blink and Utopia, two of the best episodes of the Tenth Doctor era (or indeed any era). Unusually, the book just has four chapters, one covering each of the televised episodes (most novelisations break up the narrative into multiple chapters). The second paragraph of the third chapter, briefly, is:

‘What is it?’ Vicki gasped.

When I first read the book, I wrote:

Galaxy Four was the first story from the third season, shown in 1966 (odd to think of it as the Classic Who equivalent of Smith and Jones). It’s the only one from that year I haven’t yet seen/heard, but I got the novel for free yesterday with the SFX Doctor Who special and read it pretty quickly. It’s actually rather good, up there with the average Missing Adventure of the Virgin series [note: I had read very few Missing Adventures at this stage] with Emms (who wrote nothing else for Doctor Who) letting us inside the mind of the Doctor very convincingly, and also attempting to flesh out his rather one-dimensional villain, Maaga, leader of the female Drahvin warriors. Must try and catch up with the actual series now, though I have a suspicion this may be one of the cases where the novel is better than the story.

Coming back to it fifteen years on, I remain favourably impressed. Emms was clearly a fan, and fills out the narrative not only with scenes that he would have liked to include in the actual show, but also with subsequent Who lore – most of the references to the TARDIS crew being from Earth are removed, and there are several mentions of the Doctor having two hearts, which of course wouldn’t become TV canon for another five years. We also find out that the Rills don’t share our concept of time. It’s well done, and you can get it here.

(By the way, this is the first blog post here about a book I read in 2023; otherwise I’m still working through a substantial 2022 backlog.)

Emms apparently pitched three more stories to Doctor Who without success, one for Patrick Troughton and two for Peter Davison, and the first of these was repurposed into a Make Your Own Adventure game book starring the Sixth Doctor in 1986. I read it in 2014 and was not impressed:

This was apparently based on ideas that Emms (who wrote Galaxy 4) had put together for a Second Doctor story to be called The Imps. I fear it may be one of those cases where we should be rather glad it wasn’t made. The plot, such as it is, is about a rather tedious effort to manage dangerous plants on a vital spaceship run. The next sentence of this paragraph is not an opinion I shall often have cause to express, but in this case it is true. Terror of the Vervoids did it better.

The structure of the book is much the laziest of any of the six: at every turn, you are presented with three choices, of which in every single case the first two lead to failure and the third to success. From both section 14 and section 23, the two wrong options are section 8 and section 16, while sections 12 and 22 are fatal snippets which are not attached to any preceding text. I couldn’t actually be bothered to work out which ending was meant to go with which previous section. The one mildly saving grace is that a couple of the false turns are so silly as to verge on gonzo surrealism: one option, for instance, has “you” gobbled up by Dracula and his brides (who are somehow occupying a cabin in a spaceship to Venus), and another leaves “you” trying to emulate the Scarlet Pimpernel in revolutionary France. But this is lazy stuff, contemptuous of the reader.

You can get it here.

Emms wrote no other books, but he wrote 80 TV scripts between 1963 and 1980, including twelve episodes of The Newcomers, the now forgotten soap that was Verity Lambert’s next assignment – Galaxy Four was her last complete credited story as producer.

Anyway. In 2011, one of the missing episodes of Galaxy Four was found, and the new (well, 2021) DVD includes it and a colour animation of all four episodes. I had previously watched the Loose Canon animations, which give a decent sense of the scale of the ambition of the production. But there is nothing quite like seeing the original. Here (for the time being at least) is a side by side comparison of the two.

I think Galaxy Four has some great concepts. I’ve mentioned several above: the appearances-can-be-deceptive approach to the two races of aliens, the Doctor as ethical hero, the grand sweep of the planetary setting, Geoffrey Hodgson’s electronic sounds. Stephanie Bidmead (a Kidderminster girl) is great as Maaga, leader of the Drahvins. The music is stock music rather than specially composed, but very well chosen. Peter Purves famously complained about the script, but actually I think Stephen gets as much to do as anyone. And I think it’s the first but not the last time that the TARDIS itself is used as an external energy source.

The downside is that these great concepts are united by a plot that doesn’t make much sense. There’s confusion about how long there is until the planet will explode, and no clarity about why. The plot consists entirely of the Doctor and companions running from the TARDIS, to the Drahvins’ ship, to the Rills’ ship and back again, for no very good reason. The “Trap of Steel” which is the title of the third episode doesn’t actually appear until the fourth episode. The regulars and guests carry it off well, and if you switch your forebrain off and enjoy the concepts, you’ll like it. It’s a very agreeable early case of Doctor Who engaging with classic science fiction tropes.

The new colour animation will now become the standard that fans think of as the “real” Galaxy Four. As usual, it’s good but I feel not quite as good as the real thing would have been. Some decent tweaks are made to the action, and the planetscape is beautifully realised as well. And the info text is, as usual, interesting and informative. I have not yet rewatched it with the audio commentaries by cast and others. Here’s the trailer:

Extras include the Loose Canon reconstructions for the first, second and fourth episodes – I think there would have been no harm in including the third episode as well. There is n extended interview with Peter Purves, featuring a few other people involved with the production (including Clive Doig, who I always remember for his work on Vision On), and also an interview with Terry Burnett, the man who turned out to have had the missing third episode stashed away for decades. It also has the camera scripts. A fine investment for the serious Doctor Who collector. You can get it here.